SAN JUAN, RGV – If the United States has the ingenuity to put a man on the Moon, how come it cannot educate enough student nurses to satisfy demand in the healthcare industry?

This was a question posed by PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel King, in a wide ranging interview with the Guardian recently.

“How in this country can President Kennedy say we will put a man on the Moon inside a decade, and yet we have this chronic shortage of nurses? It is surely much simpler to build up our nurse programs than put a man on the Moon,” King said.

“Local colleges tell me that they only have a certain number of slots for their nursing program and they turn away lots of qualified students. What is wrong with this picture? The demand is there in the marketplace and we have capable students who are trying to get in the nursing programs.”

King has received national recognition for both the dropout recovery program and the early college program he has developed at PSJA. At a recent hearing of the Texas Senate Committee on Education, Chairman Dan Patrick, a Republican state senator from Houston, was fulsome in his praise for King’s work. Over the past year, leaders from 50 school districts have visited PSJA to look at the district’s dropout recovery and early college successes.

King has been interested in solving the nursing shortage since the early 1990s, when he was a high school principal. He noticed well-qualified students were being turned away from nursing programs because community colleges did not have enough teachers.

“The colleges need nurses with master’s degrees to teach those courses and those nurses can get more money working in private practice. You would think we could build that program up so we can have enough nurses. We are very short sighted,” King said.

“We do not invest in the programs that matter. We end up importing a large percentage of our nurses. I have nothing against someone coming here to better themselves. My concern is we are creating a perpetual underclass. We are trying to do everything on the cheap.”

The shortage of nurses in the United States and especially Texas has been well-documented. According to the Bureau of Health Professionals, the U.S. is slated to have 2,001,998 registered nurses by 2020. The demand for registered nurses in that year will be 2,810,414. This means there will be a deficit of 28.8 percent.

According to a survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, U.S. nursing schools turned away 75,587 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs in 2011 due to an insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, clinical preceptors, and budget constraints. Almost two-thirds of the nursing schools responding to the group’s survey pointed to faculty shortages as a reason for not accepting all qualified applicants into entry-level baccalaureate programs.

In states in the southwest and in particular Texas, the situation is worse. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, Texas is facing a shortage of 71,000 nurses by 2020 as demand continues to outpace supply. The problem, the agency says, is getting worse because more baby boomers are retiring and need more medical assistance and the average age of nurses is getting higher. Possibly as many as 40 percent of registered nurses will retire by the year 2020, the group states.

The Texas Nursing Workforce Shortage Coalition welcomed the Texas Legislature’s 2009 decision to invest $49.7 million in special funding for nursing education, saying it was a “sound investment.” It points out that first-year enrollment in nursing schools grew 15.8 percent from academic year 2009 to 2010, and total enrollment in nursing schools increased 12 percent for the same period. Graduates increased 10.8 percent.

Yet, Texas still has a serious shortage of registered nurses, the group states. It says that during a recession, nurse participation in the labor market increases. “When the economy improves and nurse participation in the workforce returns to normal levels, Texas will again face a severe shortage of nurses.”

In his interview with the Guardian, King said Texas is not just short of nurses but engineers and professionals in the high tech arenas.

“The shortages are there yet we have tens of thousands of capable students that if we geared up and aligned our education system we could help. If we can get a man to the moon with 1960s technology, we should be able to solve this infrastructure problem. I know that South Texas College turns away hundreds of high school graduates who are very qualified.  We are very short sighted, nationally,” King said.

“I have been saying for 20 years this is a solvable problem and it has not been solved. We need to build, intentionally build, pipelines.  I am not saying we follow the European model, with total control on how many students go into a certain field. But, we have to get more strategic and more intentional. There is not enough focus at the state or national level.”